“Partnership” Colchester Federated Church, October 1, 2017 (Matthew 28:16-20), World Communion Sunday/Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s World Communion Sunday!  Today we give thanks for Christians around the world and the beautiful diversity of races, ethnicities, and cultures who are siblings in Christ.  We may not agree on every Christian belief and practice.  Our prayers may sound different and our worship services have diverse styles.  Though today we focus on an essential part of our faith: Communion and the unity the Sacrament represents.  In this important act, Christians the world over gather at Christ’s table from north and south, east and west.  We break bread and pour the cup, and we remember.  We remember Jesus’ words and deeds.  We remember that the table is set for everyone who wishes to know the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst.  Here at Christ’s Table we receive grace for the journey as we work for a just world for all people.

In previous churches, I’ve been privileged to witness and participate in partnerships with Christians in Ghana, India, Zambia, and Honduras.  I’ve traveled to India twice, and then Zambia and Honduras through these church partnerships and worshipped with fellow Christians in those countries.  In India, the sanctuary of the little Roman Catholic village church where we stay is divided between men and woman and most people sit on the floor unless you are elderly.  When I went to sit on the floor on the women’s side for the first time, the women made scolding sounds and forced me into a chair to be kind to me as a guest.  In Zambia, there was a huge Catholic Mass we attended.  The priests don’t always get paid much—though the people take it upon themselves to provide their priest with a good Sunday meal.  So will walk up to the altar during the offering with various foods and even a dead chicken he can take home and cook later that week.  The people give as generously to the church as they can, though sometimes it can’t be in the form of money.  In Honduras, we attended a Pentecostal service at a small neighborhood church where a mother was very concerned about her son not doing well in school.  So the minister exhorted us all to pray for her son as the little boy sat in his chair just blushing and looking down at his feet while the minister dramatically laid on hands and called on the boy to do better in school, please Lord!

Though one especially meaningful worship service is one we experienced in China.  Two days after graduating from seminary, I hopped on a 14 hour flight to Hong Kong as part of a group of seminarians on the UCC and Disciple of Christ’s Council of Theological Students’ Global Ministries Board.  As part of this group, we were encouraged to go on a People to People Pilgrimage.  Our objective was to learn about Christianity in China.  We visited some tourist destinations like the Great Wall in Beijing and the Terra Cotta Army in Xi’an.  Though we also visited nine different Seminaries and met Christian leaders on the China Christian Council and even leaders in the Communist Party responsible for overseeing all of the religions in China.  We were able to speak with Christian ministers and seminarians and learn a great deal about how Christianity is practiced in China.

On one of the Sundays we were there, our group attended church in the countryside.  The congregation had about 1,200 members.  It was a worship experience like nothing we Americans had ever witnessed because of its style, but mostly because of its intensity.  Due to periods of government repression, Chinese Christians have such a passion for their faith.  They know that it could potentially be outlawed again depending on who’s in power, so they practice their Christianity with fervor.  At one point in the service, the minister got up and prayed aloud at the pulpit and asked people to pray along.  It would be like me getting up to do the Pastoral Prayer and asking you to pray your own prayers as I’m saying mine up here.  Everyone in the congregation began to pray (mostly out loud) at the same time.  Some people were whispering, some were shouting, some were weeping, some got down on their knees in the aisle, some sat down, most stood up.  All of these Christians were praying their separate prayers simultaneously, over a thousand people praying together!

This must have gone on for five minutes.  At one point, it was sensory overload and I closed my eyes to just listen to all of these voices.  Of course, they were praying in Mandarin, so we had no idea what they were saying.  But you could feel their prayers.  In that moment, we were one body with many parts. We were the body of Christ.  So even though we were from different places, used different styles of worship, and even spoke different languages, somehow this religious experience transcended all of that.

Since that experience in that country church in China, World Communion Sunday has taken on added meaning.  Because World Communion Sunday helps us to remember that we are not in this alone and that Christianity is like a beautiful quilt of which we are but one small square.  As Jesus told his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[1]  People took Jesus’ message of the Great Commission to heart, and still do.

Christianity spread from its Jewish roots with the first disciples on that mountain in Galilee receiving instructions from Jesus himself all the way to where we are today—with 2.2 billion Christians around the world.  Christianity took root in places like Ghana, Zambia, Honduras, India, and China—the partnerships I’ve experienced firsthand that have enriched Christian communities here in the United States.  And to put the numbers into perspective, 2.2 billion Christians is around 31% of the world’s population of 6.9 billion people.  Another way to say it, nearly 1 in 3 people are Christians.[2]  Not in the United States mind you, we’re talking about the entire planet here.  Christianity is a whole lot bigger than just us.

And here at Colchester Federated Church we can remember and give thanks this morning of all mornings for our Korean Partnership.  We know that we are not following in the footsteps of Christ alone because we have friends from Korea who are walking alongside us on this journey of faith.  This morning it’s important to share a little background about our partnership and contemplate how our partner church enriches our Christian community.

Through the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ we have a partnership with the Kyung-Ki Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in South Korea.  This partnership formed in 1994.  At that time, the churches committed to building a relationship with one another, to learn about each other’s cultures, and to grow in faith together.  Individual churches in Connecticut established partnerships with individual Korean churches with the help of the Connecticut Conference Korean Partnership Committee.  We’re not the only church in the Connecticut Conference UCC who has a Korean partner church!  The Korean Partnership involves churches in Mystic, Granby, Glastonbury, Niantic, and us.  Korean churches are so interested in having Connecticut partner churches that there’s actually a wait-list in Korea in the hopes that churches will decide to become part of the program and begin a partnership.

In 2014 the Deacons of our church voted to formally enter into a partnership with the Hanmok Presbyterian Church in South Korea.  Our partnership extends to October of 2018 with the opportunity to renew the partner agreement.  This summer there were two young Korean students, Jacky (an Elder at their church and chaperone), and his daughter Sue (also a trip chaperone), who were with us for two Sundays.  We welcomed them and read letters of greeting to one another in worship.  We sang songs to honor each other and gave small gifts of appreciation.  The students had an opportunity to spend a week at Silver Lake Camp with other Korean youth and American youth too, learning and growing.  And there were opportunities for the youth to experience a bit of American culture—they desperately wanted to see New York City and go to a real American mall which the Clarkes made happen.  We even set up a booth at the Farmer’s Market one Sunday afternoon to advertise our partnership in the Colchester community and it was a real highlight for our Korean friends to eat funnel cake for the first time right outside on the Town Green!

Our partner agreement specifies that we visit one another, we keep the lines of communication open and send greetings, we pray for each other, and find ways to even do mission work together if possible.  Rev. Choi (who serves as the Pastor of the Hanmok Church) will be coming to Colchester in November as I become Installed as the Pastor of our church to bring greetings and good wishes from our partner church, the Hanmok Church.  So our partnership continues to grow and evolve as we learn more about one another over these years of relationship-building.

Here’s the thing, language barriers and cultural differences can of course be felt by churches when we are part of an international partnership.  Yet, somehow the love of Christ transcends our not always being able to understand one another perfectly.  Somehow we have those moments where we see each other as different parts of the body of Christ.  We see each other as part of this great cloud of witnesses Christ created when he told the disciples to go therefore and make disciples of all nations.  We are blessed to be part of the faith journeys of fellow disciples in the Hanmok Church in Korea.  Just as they are blessed to be part of the faith journey of fellow disciples here at our Federated Church in Colchester, Connecticut.  So on this World Communion Sunday, we remember our partners in Christ, we pray for our partners, and we know that Jesus is with all of us always—to the end of the age.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.
[2] Bill Chappell, “World’s Muslim Population Will Surpass Christians This Century Pew Says,” NPR, April 2, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/04/02/397042004/muslim-population-will-surpass-christians-this-century-pew-says